It began with a defeat to the coming champions, England, and ended with defeat to the past masters, Ireland, and so much happened in-between, so much that was good and so much that was bad, so many moments to ponder in Scotland’s Six Nations campaign.
This is a recap of sorts, a trip through the weeks from England in round one to Ireland in round five and everything in-between.
Player of the tournament
In years gone by this was a lightly contested category. This year was different. WP Nel has a claim for his scrummaging and his play in the loose and his fantastic engine. Alasdair Dickinson was a key man also. Greig Laidlaw, John Hardie and brothers Richie and Jonny Gray were impressive, but it has to be Stuart Hogg.
Two tries, three assists and many reminders that rugby can still be a beautiful game when the rapiers are at their sharpest.
Again, a category with many entrants compared to previous years when it was scarcely worth having the category given the paucity of contenders.
Hogg’s solo run in Dublin comes close, but we go with the final try against France, not just because of Hogg’s glorious moment in teeing-up Tim Visser but for some of the stuff that went before.
Scotland kicked a penalty to touch instead of going for the posts. A good decision. Then they attacked in waves. This was the 66th minute and Nel was taking ball up like a fresh player. Richie Gray made another great decision not to force an offload at a critical point.
A penalty came Scotland’s way and a third great call in the same passage of play saw Laidlaw opt for ambition instead of safety with that long-range pass. Hogg’s sweet flick-on put Visser over for a try that secured the win. Immense.
Put-down of the championship
Eddie Jones did a lot of trash-talking but his first attempt was a slight on Scotland that was all the more annoying because it was true.
After winning at Murrayfield, Jones said that he knew the game was done by half-time because his statistics told him that Scotland scored 69% of their points in the opening half of recent Six Nations games. He was only one percentage point out. Ouch.
Thankfully, that percentage no longer applies.
When will we see you again?
Sean Maitland and Blair Cowan were invalided out of the Scotland squad during the build-up to the Italy game. The official reason from the SRU was that they were both injured.
They returned to their club, London Irish, and started their Premiership game the day after Scotland beat Italy. Vern Cotter doesn’t say much, but the fact that neither of them have come within shouting distance of the team since then says much. You wonder what kind of future they have now.
What might have been
It was close to the hour-mark against England with the visitors ahead by six points. Ben Youngs had his pass intercepted by Finn Russell who booted downfield. Had Russell looked to his left he would have seen Hogg running free.
Hogg would have had a mighty distance to get to the England try-line but you’d have lumped your mortgage on him making it. A score then and you never know what have happened.
Blunder of the championship
That fateful miscommunication at a line-out at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Richie Gray tapped down to Laidlaw, who wasn’t expecting it. Soon after, Jamie Roberts crashed over and a 16-13 lead for the Scots had turned into a 20-16 lead for the Welsh. That was the bitter turning point.
Tackle of the championship
Still in Wales and it’s Duncan Taylor’s try-saver on Tom James. When people talk about tackles in rugby these days too often they mean hits, acts of brutality that scramble a player’s senses.
This was a thing of beauty. James was destined for the try-line until Taylor hunted him down and timed his tackle to perfection. Had Scotland won it would have gone down in legend.
There has been much admiration of the Scottish scrum and Nel’s massive role in it. The tighthead has brought a rock-solid stability and has allowed Alasdair Dickinson to cause significant damage. Dickinson’s destructiveness has been pivotal. Scotland won six scrum penalties in Rome and Dickinson won five of them. He caused France untold problems as well.
Nerves of steel
Back to Rome where Scotland were beginning to come under pressure after having had Russell put in the sin-bin and watching Italy score a try that narrowed the gap to six points with 16 minutes remaining.
Scotland needed leadership in that moment and Laidlaw provided it. He sized up a penalty that wasn’t far off 50m and boomed it over. It stretched their lead to nine points and reassured his team. A huge moment.
Moment to make you smile (part one)
Stuart Hogg’s gorgeous side-door pass to Tommy Seymour for Scotland’s game-clinching third try in Rome.
Dave Denton had been a ball-carrying colossus during the World Cup, but the Denton of the autumn didn’t turn up in the spring. He wasn’t himself in the opening games and didn’t play again after that.
In Dublin, Scotland lacked a ball-carrier of the quality of CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip, but they didn’t have one. More than anybody else in this Scotland squad, that’s Denton’s gig. Scotland could do with him restored to his battering-ram best.
Moment to make you smile (part two)
Stuart Hogg’s improvised moment in the air when shipping a pass on to Visser for the clincher against France.
The low-key and fairly limp effort against England was a major let-down in week one, but the opening 40 minutes in Dublin were as bad, if not worse, because none of us saw it coming.
Ireland owned the ball and out-muscled Scotland. They spent more than 80% of the first period in Scotland’s half. The visitors did well to hold on, trailing by just eight points at the end of the half, but they lacked aggression and edge.
The Irish were excellent, but Scotland didn’t turn up in the physical stakes until the game was half over.
Moment to make you smile (part three)
Yes, him again. Hogg’s identification of two front-row forwards in his path in Dublin and the speed of thought and feet in exploiting that gap was electrifying. A try out of nothing for a very special player.
It’s hard to split them – Nel, John Hardie and Duncan Taylor. This was the first championship for Nel and Hardie and for Taylor it was a coming of age and a journey back from the wilderness. In quick order he has cemented his place at 13.
The hope is that Mark Bennett will find his World Cup form soon, for he can still be a hugely important player for many years to come. He lost his way a little in the Six Nations, but Bennett is a class act.
Alex Dunbar is back, though. And what a strong comeback. Dunbar was Scotland’s main man in the midfield before injury cruelly robbed him of a chance to play in the World Cup. Dunbar is beginning to motor again – an exciting prospect.
Moment to make you smile (part four)
A brilliant piece of work at a breakdown by Tommy Seymour against France and then Taylor’s rapid-fire thinking to see the opportunity, tap the penalty and run in for a try from halfway. That kind of opportunism has been missing in Scotland’s game since Jim Telfer’s team of 1999.